CHICAGO – Cliffhangers are supposed to come later, when Team USA is up a few or down a few points late in a tense 2014 FIBA World Cup game over in Spain. Or when the final roster cutdowns have to be made, shrinking the current list of 16 players to 12.
Instead, uncertainty and nail-biting already abound as the U.S. men’s team resumes its workout and tune-up schedule this week. The roster, the risks, the style of play and the eventual matchups that Team USA will pose – and face – going forward in the tournament all hang heavy as questions still in search of answers.
No George, no Durant – When last we left the assemblage of basketball talent, coach Mike Krzyzewski and poobah Jerry Colangelo at the USA Basketball Showcase in Las Vegas, most everyone’s eyes were glazed over and their minds were elsewhere after the gruesome right-leg fractures suffered by Paul George, the Indiana Pacers’ star wing player, deep into the public intra-squad scrimmage. Six days later, Kevin Durant – the NBA’s 2014 Most Valuable Player and Team USA’s most potent scorer – withdrew from participation, citing extreme physical and mental fatigue. Durant, a four-time NBA scoring champion, led the U.S. squad to a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics with 19.5 ppg and carried the 2010 World Championship team by averaging 22.8 while no teammate averaged more than 9.8. George, after playing two years ago for the Select Team, figured to step up as a scorer this summer to help Durant.
Risk debate rekindled – Derrick Rose‘s strong showing in Las Vegas two weeks ago has whet appetites of Chicago Bulls fans, who are eager to see or at least hear about his continuing progress at practice Thursday and Friday and in the exhibition game against Brazil Saturday night at United Center. But seeing George wheeled off on a stretcher to face surgery and a year of rehab, with Rose on the scene, hit close to home for many of them. Last November, Rose – who was coming back from left-knee ACL surgery that cost him the entire 2012-13 season – tore meniscus cartilage in his right in his 10th game for Chicago. But at least that was for Chicago. George’s injury sparked anew the debate over NBA involvement in the international competition and the health/financial risks shouldered by the league’s owners and their players. Dallas’ Mark Cuban again spoke (and Tweeted) out, while Durant’s ill-timed withdrawal seemed to some like an obvious case of a valuable property seeking cover. And yet, the show goes on, continuing to New York next week for exhibitions against the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico at Madison Square Garden.
Going small – It’s not only Durant’s scoring prowess that might be missed. His length will be absent, too, just like Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge. That could be an issue if Team USA winds up facing Spain and the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc, with the championship at stake. Heck, it could be a problem Saturday against Brazil – that squad’s big men all are proven NBA hard cases: Tiago Splitter, Nene and Anderson Varejao. Sacramento forward Rudy Gay (6-foot-8, 230 pounds) has been added to the roster for now and could find himself having to play bigger than he’s accustomed to, as could Dallas’ Chandler Parsons (6-9, 200). Team USA’s size, at the moment, starts with Anthony Davis, then drops off from there with DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, Mason Plumlee and Kenneth Faried (with one of them expected to be cut).
Unkind cuts elsewhere – There are four point guards among the current 16 – Rose, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard – but it’s no lock that any of them gets cut because Curry, Lillard and even Rose could slot over to for minutes at shooting guard. The wings include DeMar DeRozan, James Harden, Gordon Hayward, Kyle Korver and Klay Thompson, along with Gay and Parsons. So there will be guessing games aplenty about both the final cuts and the likely starting lineup, stirred up as soon as Thursday by the combinations of players used in the end-of-practice scrimmages.